It's that time of year again. We are at the business end of the NBA season, the Playoffs. Here we will take a look at the match ups in the Eastern Conference, where the defending champions the Miami Heat look primed for another deep run in the post season.
- Miami Heat (1) vs Milwaukee Bucks (8)
LeBron James and the Heat begin their post season quest to repeat with a first round matchup against the Bucks, who scraped into the final Playoff place despite underachieving for much of the season. With their 38-44 record much more was expected of the Bucks this year and they can count themselves very fortunate that the bottom of the East is very weak.
They will have their work cut out against the Heat, who have used last year's triumph to spur them on to even greater achievements this year. They have been visibly more relaxed this season, the pressure of finally lifting an NBA Championship has been removed and the team has displayed a much more relaxed demeanour this season. Their 27 game winning streak achieved this season is the second longest in NBA history and most experts agree that it will take a monumental effort from any team to defeat them four times in a seven game series. Led by likely MVP LeBron James, their power offense and stifling defense will be too much for 99% of the teams in the league at the present moment.
That's not to say the Bucks don't have the potential to cause the Heat some problems. They have elite perimeter scorers in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, who have the potential to take over a game on any given night. Larry Sanders has been a valuable addition on the interior and in Samuel Dalembert they have a solid rebounder and defensive presence that should make the Heat's perimeter players think twice about attacking the basket.
Heat: Chris Bosh (Power Forward).
- Wade and James will garner the attention but Bosh is the key to the Heat's chances in the Playoffs. His quality play down the stretch last season was the main contributing factor in getting the Heat over the line. He should be able to take advantage of the Bucks fear of the likes of James and Wade attacking the rim by getting a lot of open looks from mid-point range. Bosh should have a strong series.
Bucks: Monta Ellis (Shooting Guard).
- If the Bucks are to do any damage against the Heat they will need their premier scorer firing on all cylinders. Ellis has averaged nearly twenty points a game throughout the season and will be counted on to put another couple of points onto that average during this series. He will have tough guards during this series, the likelihood of Shane Battier, Dwayne Wade and James guarding is daunting to say the least. He should have some joy though, whether it will be enough is a whole other story altogether.
- The Bucks look inexperienced and out matched and it is difficult to see how they can cause the Heat any consistent problems. Miami will advance and I would be surprised if they drop a game in this series.
- Miami advances 4-0 (Best of 7)
- New York Knicks (2) vs Boston Celtics (7).
This promises to be the matchup of the first round. It is easily the most intriguing, with the Knicks not having won a Playoff series in 20 years. This is a different Knicks team to what we have seen in the past. It is littered with experience and with talent not seen at the Garden in many years. They have the NBA scoring Champion in Carmelo Anthony and the likely sixth man of the year in J.R Smith that will be counted on to provide the explosive scoring. However, it will be the health of Tyson Chandler that will be the determining factor in this series for the Knicks.
Chandler has been out for a long period with a bulging disk in his back but all the signs point to him being fit for the Playoffs. Chandler sets the tone on defense and his battle against Kevin Garnett will be key to this series. He is not the only Knick who has been wrapped in cotton wool to ensure health for the Playoffs, this ageing team was always going to pick up an injury or two along the way but their health during the Playoffs will be paramount.
The Celtics have had injury problems of their own. They lost their talisman and Point Guard Rajon Rondo to an ACL injury and the Celtics have rebounded well from that blow with a solid run of form that has them in the seventh seed in the East. They have also been without Garnett for a considerable amount of time although they have been airing on the side of caution for a number of weeks as they want him a hundred percent for the post season.
The games between these two have been close this season and at times the bad blood between the two sides has boiled over. The New York/Boston rivalry is not for the faint of heart in any sport and it's no different here. This is sure to be a close series that will captivate everybody that is fortunate to witness it.
Knicks: J.R Smith (Shooting Guard).
- Smith has been in tremendous form this year but has always been known as being a streaky shooter in the past. This will be the acid test for Smith as he will be guarded by the duo of Avery Bradley and Paul Pierce, considered two of the better perimeter defenders in the league. Whether Smith can overcome these obstacles and continue his fantastic form will be key to this series.
Celtics: Kevin Garnett (Power Forward).
- Garnett is the emotional heartbeat of this team and it will give every single player on the roster a huge boost if he is available for game one of this series. Just how much Garnett can contribute after so long out will be key to the Celtics chances. He will no doubt still be a force on the defensive side of the ball but whether he is in game shape and has sufficient amount of practice to get his shooting rhythm only time will tell.
- It will be physical, it will be emotional and it will be fascinating. The Knicks have been on a roll in recent weeks and should have enough to overcome the Celtics in an extremely tight series.
- Knicks advance 4-2 (Best of Seven).
- Indiana Pacers (3) vs Atlanta Hawks (6):
The Pacers have been one of the surprise packages this season. They have assembled a powerhouse unit and have a legitimate all-star and most improved player of the year candidate in Paul George. He has been exceptional in Danny Granger's absence and if it wasn't for the exceptional form of the Heat and the Knicks in the latter stages of the season then they would be higher then their third seed.
They don't possess much Playoff experience throughout their roster, with only David West having an notable experience in the post season. Last seasons experience of getting to the Eastern Conference semi-finals where they were narrowly pipped by the Heat will stand this team in good stead. That was a harsh lesson to learn and every player on the Pacers team who experienced it will have learnt so much and will no doubt be stronger for that experience.
The Hawks have once again been frustrating and extremely inconsistent this season. They dealt with the Josh Smith trade scenario well and ensured they kept him for the Playoffs. There has always been intense speculation surrounding Smith's future that has evidently affected his game at times this year. Since the trade deadline has passed there has been a noticeable improvement in Smith's game and this will have to continue if they are to become anything more than a first round Playoff team.
That's not to say the Hawks chances are totally dependant on Smith. Al Horford and Jeff Teague's play in the post season will be just as crucial. Horford will look to stifle the fierce interior presence of Roy Hibbert and David West while providing the low post scoring which will be essential if they are to beat the Pacers.
Pacers: David West (Power Forward).
- West can always be counted on to come up with crucial plays down the stretch and his experience will be vital for this Pacer team. Last years experience will have taught them a valuable lesson and West's experience will be vital as he looks to provide them with a scoring presence on the interior whilst guarding one of the Hawks most dangerous scorers in Al Horford
Hawks: Al Horford (Centre).
- Horford may not provide much offensive influence with the tenacious and gigantic Roy Hibbert guarding him but his influence on just how much Hibbert affects the game on the glass will have a massive say on the outcome of this series.
- The Hawks have been far too consistent to be counted on to win a tough series against the defensively sound Pacers. They should have too much both on the inside and on the perimeter and should win this encounter comfortably.
- Pacers advance 4-1 (Best of 7).
- Brooklyn Nets (4) vs Chicago Bulls (5).
The one thing hanging over this series will be the question that has been on every Bulls fan's lips for the majority of the second half of the season:
Will Derrick Rose come back?
Rose has been out all year after a serious knee injury and the sight of him doing drills before games has given every Bulls fan hope for his return. Rose has said he won't come back until he is 100% but if the Bulls want to go deep in the Playoffs they will need Rose healthy and in the line up. The rest of the Bulls roster has done an excellent job of steering the ship in the absence of the former MVP and they have a respectable seeding for the run-in.
They have achieved this by their trademark defensive prowess and efficient scoring. Led by their locker room leaders Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. They have also had valuable contributions from their role players, in particular Nate Robinson, who has given the Bulls valuable energy and tremendous scoring off the bench. Every one of these players will be critical if they are to cause an upset in the first round.
The Brooklyn Nets have been on a rollercoaster this season following their move from New Jersey. It has been a difficult transition moving to a city where the Knicks are king. They have taken their time to become a cohesive unit but things finally seem to be on the up for the Nets. They have the fourth seed in the East which guarantees them home court advantage in the first round and a chance for them to build a foundation for the future.
There's no doubt the Nets have proven performers in the Playoffs and despite their inconsistency this season Deron Williams and Joe Johnson will be relied upon heavily to stand up and be counted in what promises to be a close Playoff series. Williams will want to dictate the pace of the game and could have some joy against the Hawks back court, providing he plays with the urgency and vision that made him one of the best players in the league when he played for the Utah Jazz.
Nets: Joe Johnson (Shooting Guard).
- Johnson has been a frustrating sight in a Nets uniform for much of this season, setting lows in points and assists. He is an experienced Playoff performer and the Nets will look to Johnson for big performances to justify the large salary they took on when they made the trade with the Atlanta Hawks. He will find it difficult against Luol Deng and his inconsistency could be a disaster for the ambitious Nets.
Bulls: Luol Deng (Small Forward).
- Deng has been colossal this year in Rose's absence and can now be considered one of the best all-round players in the league today. He will be counted on to lock down Joe Johnson as best he can whilst conjuring up scoring plays for himself and his team-mates. If Rose doesn't make it back for the Playoffs the Bulls will only go as far as Deng will take them.
- This promises to be as an exciting a series as we will see in the first round. Both teams are very evenly matched with both capable of blowing the other out on any given night. Whether the Bulls have an ace up their sleeve in Rose remains to be seen. Even without him I fancy the Bulls to advance in a series that will go all the way.
- Bulls advance 4-3 (Best of 7).
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_